Language Politics: How Politicians Use Words to Shape Elections

Language Politics

Have you ever heard of language politics? Language politics is the way language and words are used in the political arena. Elections are happening all around the world and language has a huge impact on the way countries move forward. Given recent mid-term elections in the United States, we thought we would take a look at the phenomenon of language and rhetoric in politics. George Orwell famously wrote in 1984 about the way leaders change vocabulary to shape the masses thought processes, and this is definitely something that is not lost on politicians.

Language Politics

Political Scientist Noam Chomsky explains in his book Language and Politics exactly how words are the currency of power in elections. Communication and speechwriting are the keys to swaying voters, and in Democracy, the system calls for the people to buy in to what politicians are saying in their campaign speeches.

Today, words are incredibly important in politics, given the abundance of false information available to voters on the internet. When President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the term ‘alternative facts’ became popular, widely to discredit what different news outlets were reporting about various scandals surrounding the new administration.

Brexit Language

Rhetoric and language also prove incredibly important in Europe, where we see recent rises in right-wing, populist sentiment.

According to former BBC director general Mark Thompson, language is the cornerstone of politics and democracy, and when it deteriorates, we lose a lot more than just nice speeches. Historically, from the fall of Rome to the rise of authoritarianism, the breakdown of a common, civil way to communicate leads to the breakdown of society as a whole.

The breakdown in today’s western society began in 2016, when we saw people like Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, the entire ‘Brexit’ phenomenon, as well as far right groups in Austria, and strange coalitions in Italy, for example. The complete inability to communicate across political lines has left western societies more divided than ever, so much so that many people from opposite sides of the spectrum have simply stopped listening to anything from the other side.

Political Practicalities

The way politicians use language to manipulate the electorate was traditionally through live or televised discourse, although today we also have the social media as an important way to use words to influence people.  They also use language to create slogans – think MAGA (Make America Great Again) – that can excite the electorate and become a kind of war cry or chant.

Political discourse operates indexically, meaning that every single word being used either implicitly or explicitly expresses some political view point. This could even be as subtle as an accent, or how people are addressed. Political discourse is always aimed at interaction, including interruption, debate, and negotiation. Political discourse also tends to be vague, almost like the words of a horoscope, leaving the electorate up to interpret what is being said as they would like to understand it.

Given the importance of political discourse, and the state of slight turmoil we find ourselves in today, this article is just a short introduction to political language, to remind us all to be aware and remain critical when we go about our daily lives! Pay attention to the language used the next time you watch a politician give a speech and try to read between the lines to understand what is really being said. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from a simple word choice!


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